Whether he wants to or not, Sturgill Simpson is evolving country music. To be honest, I hesitate to peg him as a country artist, even though I can’t possibly leave country out of describing him or his show Wednesday night at The Fox in Oakland. The problem is “country music” is a goddamned subjective matter.
On the one hand, there’s a strong faction — you can find their creed at www.wehatepopcountry.com, which should give you a sense of where they come from — desperate to be done with “Bro Country” as the music of mainstream country stars like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton is called. That faction holds to the theory that pop-country is fed by the industry not the fans. That REAL country music isn’t dead, “it’s just being hidden from you.” These people claim Sturgill Simpson is making real country music, and they see him as one of the leaders in bringing it back to the mainstream, along with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and others.
Sure enough, taking in the show with a sold-out crowd, there were strong currents of classic country singers and songwriters – those in the outlaw country tradition such as Waylon Jennings, to whom Simpson is most often compared, and of course Johnny Cash with that rich deep baritone voice. There are whiskey, drugs, dreams and demons, lost things. Not many minor chords, but still somehow you feel sad. And there’s this sense of anarchy. Structured chaos, as if the sound itself were rebelling against some other set of sounds. Simpson himself is about as outlaw as they come these days — literally clad in a blue collared shirt, he’s the grandson of a mining family from Kentucky and formerly associated with the Navy and the Union Pacific. When he set out in 2013 with his debut High Top Mountain, he told Saving Country Music,
“I am attempting to make what I believe to be the purest, most uncompromising Hard Country album anyone has heard in 30 years. And it will be an effort to revitalize the neo-traditional movement spearheaded by two of my idols and fellow Kentuckians (Skaggs & Whitley) back in the 80’s. This record is coming straight from my heart and it is both an effort to pay homage to my family and the music they raised me on as well as my own attempt to return in my heart to a home that no longer exists.”
But, on the other hand, there is so much more happening in Simpson’s live set. Heaps of other influences: quick fingered bluegrass chases, which, when plugged in and set on top of a full drum kit, rather resemble a less distorted sort of speed metal*; metaphysical psychedelic space odysseys; honky tonk, rockabilly, southern rock and Delta blues; and the just plain balls-to-the-wall rock of adults raised from childhood on Zeppelin and Rush. (And I swear I heard a disco beat at least twice.) Simpson also famously covered When In Rome‘s new wave hit from 1989 “The Promise” infusing it with a dark, slow burn, although live the song saw him bursting away from the melody at almost every opportunity much to the delight of the chorusing crowd.
Given this, it’s really a misnomer to claim he’s doing any “bringing back.” This is evolution all the way. But isn’t that the only way things really move? There’s no going back. His hit, “Turtles All The Way,” for which he won the 2015 Americana Music Award for Song of the Year, stands as the perfect example of this evolution. The track you hear below ends in three minutes, but closing out Wednesday’s set, the 10-minute jam moved from the classic country sound, through classic rock and the 70’s, psychedelia, and into the genre-fusing future making something new. If you hadn’t been won over yet during the set, this was it.
“Turtles All The Way” – Sturgill Simpson
There was a home for almost anyone during this two and a half hour set. (Our writer Lance Gonzalez named it “San Francisco-approved country.”) Whatever path you took to get to Sturgill Simpson, he played a song for you. The one thing he didn’t do was take a breath. The 6-person band raced through 23 songs (but no encore) stopping only to introduce the players and to say thank you, including this: “Thank you very much Oakland. You guys have got a very beautiful room here. I don’t know who paid for it, but thank you.” It did leave a longing for more of a glimpse into the human behind this meteoric rise, but one has a feeling watching him that despite how very, very good his 2014 LP Metamodern Sounds In Country Music is, Sturgill Simpson’s best music is yet to come. I look forward to hearing this voice grow old.
Simpson finishes up a months-long US tour in the next few weeks before heading to Europe and then Australia/New Zealand.
Written by Annie Bacon @anniebacon
Photos by Victoria Smith @BigVicSmith
*Speaking of metal … it was impossible not to think of Bataclan during this show, the venues not so different in stature. Bay Area guitarist Eric McFadden was on tour with Eagles of Death Metal and there that night when the shooting began. Later he wrote, “Last night, in Paris, our friends were performing music for people, as they, and myself do all around the world most days of our lives. We do this to celebrate love, life and unity. We do this because it brings people together and shines a little light in a dark world. These terrorists hit us at the very place where we seek refuge from our troubles, and to find a reprieve from the madness. This will not detour us from living our lives, or from spreading that light. Love is our greatest power.” Sadly there were more attacks Wednesday, these ones in two Nigerian towns.